Pennies from Heaven
Six successful jazz artists recall their first paying gig
During the 2012 Jazz Cruise, JazzTimes set up a makeshift video production studio in the Boardroom, a small room on the second deck of the M/S Westerdam. Throughout the week, a succession of artists—including Kurt Elling, Freddy Cole, Ann Hampton Callaway, Jay Leonhart, Ken Peplowski, Wycliffe Gordon, Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes and many others—came in to talk about the cruise, jazz education and their own projects. These interviews are posted in their entirety on JazzTimes’ YouTube channel.
One question that provoked the most animated response from each artist was, “What was your first paid music gig?” The settings varied, but every artist remembered the experience well and many could even recall the exact amount they got paid.
Ann Hampton Callaway
My first gig wasn’t particularly exciting. It was at the top of the Holiday Inn in a round room. I was asked to do a set or two, and I sat at the piano and did the standards I knew and probably made up a few funny things. But my first [paid] gig was at this appalling place called George’s House of Steel, owned by a mafia guy who was later shot in a gang fight. I was asked not to come to work. That was a great [introduction to] show business.
My brother and I used to play banjo. We were 8 and 9 years old—this was 1949. We played in the Rivers Chambers Orchestra in Baltimore, all black guys and two little white banjo players. The guys were so sweet to us—we played at dances all over town and they’d pay us $10 a night. Then I started playing banjo in a Dixieland band and started making $50 a night, in 1952, as a 12-year-old. That was a lot of money. But then I heard the bass and I said, “That’s the one I want.” I didn’t see a whole lot of grown-up banjo players, but I saw a whole lot of grown-up bass players. The banjo was annoying me—I was a second-stringer—and when I heard Ray Brown, I said, “This is a magnificent instrument, if you learn to play it correctly.”
The first gig I ever actually got paid for was at Libertyland in Memphis, a theme park. The mascot was a hound dog, as in “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” You had to be prompt and be well groomed. It was a real job during the summer, five or six days a week. I don’t remember how much I got paid, but it was way more than I’d ever imagined as a 17-year-old. It was great to get that check with all of the formal information on it and tear it off. It was so beautiful.
My first gig where I got paid was in Richmond, Ind. I was a sophomore in high school, and the town had two restaurants [that featured] piano trios. One was Elizabeth Parker’s restaurant on Main Street. We sat in the window with our backs to Main Street. People would see us playing and come in and have the roast beef or whatever. I think I got about $35 for the first job, which was good in 1968 or ’69.
I got paid $5 for playing at [my friend] Glen Hauenstein’s house with my band, Emanon. We had an hour’s worth of Beatles material. I remember my bass player said, “We should charge them.” I said, “We only have an hour’s worth of material. We should just play his backyard for him; it’s this little party.” I remember the bass player calling him up and saying, “We charge. It’s gonna be $15. Everybody gets $5.” Glen wrote a check—“Come on, we’re 14!”
I was in a rock band in grade school in Dallas, Tex., and the guitar player could also play a little drums. There was a little hole-in-the-wall dive bar called Ferguson’s Landing, in the same strip mall where my mom bought her groceries. We were just looking through the windows and we stumbled on it—we were maybe 13. We saw that there was a piano and a drumset inside and we said, “We should go in there and play.” I knew all these different songs—pop songs, not jazz. What we didn’t know was that it was a place where older people, fairly far gone into alcoholism—Dallas music union guys—hung out. We’d go in and the guys would say, “Oh, the kids are here!” and we’d play Beatles tunes and Carpenters tunes and Blood, Sweat and Tears. We’d walk out of there with between 15 and 20 bucks. In 1973, for two 13-year-old kids, that was a lot of money.